Tuesday, December 22, 2009
Anyone who follows popular culture may have recognized that Avatar has gotten outstanding reviews from most major publications: Rolling Stone, The New York Times, The New Yorker. But, in what Ross Douthat has referred to as a revolt of the fan-boys and nerds, there has been some blow-back on the internet. This is because, in spite of the film's technical depth, its characters and themes are as shallow as a water drop on oak.
The protagonist is a perfect example of this shallowness: His name is Jake Scully (given the film's ardent pantheism, something like Emerson Spinoza might have been more appropriate) and, apparently, he is a former marine. We don't know much about his service (or even if he was good at it), but the lifestyle appears to die harder than his legs do--in his human body, he's confined to a wheelchair (and, yes, if you're wondering, his skinny legs look more convincing than anything else in the movie). The only back story that Cameron provides is that Scully had a scientist brother who died at some point and that, at one point or another, he was in Venezuela (do I detect a Stone-ism here?)
Perhaps Cameron would object that he does not too overly-humanize the, well, human characters because they represent the assumed Military Industrial Complex of the Robber Barons, Corp. The problem is that when he introduces the indigenous tribe, they aren't really much more distinctive. Scully's attraction to them is predictable (after all, this movie was made after Dances with Wolves and A Man Called Horse) but also incomprehensible, given that there is nothing intriguing--or even attractive--about them. Their platitudinous speech is ridden with cliches one might expect from any Hollywood picture. However, they are unrealistic on a deeper level than their silly dialogue and cat ears would suggest. (They also have a tail, but that's not the strangest thing.)
What is least believable about the tribe is the love that all of them have for nature; this seems much more reflective of the tastes of the bourgeoisie bohemian producer of this piece than any indigenous tribe that has existed in any place in history. Love of nature is a product of urbanization; for those who depend on nature and constantly struggle against its darker side for survival, fear is the default position (and rightly so); it is true that nature yields plentifully, but it does not do so for humanity. To conceptualize of nature--as the Na'vi tribe in the movie does--as a maternal goddess is simply absurd.
To say that nature is cruel is, as Stephen J. Gould has pointed out, somewhat quaint, given that it occupies an entirely different wavelength of moral order; nature is neither cruel nor kind, but comfortably amoral and diverse (though, as Darwin argued in the Origins of the Species, it tends to be fairly intolerant of diversity within species--perhaps the reason why all of Cameron's Na'vi look pretty much the same.) Nature being what it is, humanity is almost a perfect corollary to it for, unlike nature, men progress by devolution rather evolution: the sword is made by the man who can't lift a stone, the bow by a man who can't wield a sword, the rifle by a man who can't pull a bow string and the nuclear weapon by the man who can't shoot straight. Nature is beautiful, as long as it is contained within the consciousness but the humanity which Cameron purges by the end of the film provide, by merit of being fully human, the only compass by which anyone's actions in the film could be gauged as moral or immoral.
Naturally, the most lasting feature of the film will not be these themes but rather the new technology that went into its production and created a fly so real that (as I noted at the beginning of this essay) I tried to brush it away. What can be said for this? Mainstream critics have already said it all so I will only add that I hope that filmmakers of equal technical talent as that of James Cameron and greater storytelling ability will, like that carrion fly I waved at, tear off some slice of inspiration from this production which may be tasty but also as dead as the carcasses which ultimately turn to nothing but a naked skull and rib cage.
Wednesday, December 16, 2009
"Attempting to comprehend what has happened, and refusing to believe Clarence’s explanations, George attempts to retrace his steps. He recalls that this awful transformation first occurred when he was at Martini’s bar, and decides to seek out Martini at home. Martini, in the first reality, is one of the beneficiaries of George’s assistance when he is able to purchase a home in Bailey Park; however, in the alternate reality without George, of course the subdivision is never built. Still refusing to believe what has transpired, George makes his way through the forest where Bailey Park would have been, but instead ends in front of the town’s old cemetery outside town. Facing the old gravestones, Clarence asks, “Are you sure Martini’s house is here?” George is dumbfounded: “Yes, it should be.” George confirms a horrific suspicion: Bailey Park has been built atop the old cemetery. Not only does George raze the trees, but he commits an act of unspeakable sacrilege. He obliterates a sacred symbol of Bedford Fall’s connection with the past, the grave markers of the town’s ancestors. George Bailey’s vision of a modern America eliminates his links with his forebears, covers up the evidence of death, supplies people instead with private retreats of secluded isolation, and all at the expense of an intimate community, in life and in death."
You can find the rest on Front Porch Republic if you like. My response to this was "Let the dead bury the dead". Do you agree? Sub-question: Is Prof. Deneen's communitarian-ism reconcilable with Christianity, which is a fundamentally cosmopolitan religion?
Saturday, December 12, 2009
Tuesday, December 8, 2009
Wednesday, November 25, 2009
Sunday, November 15, 2009
Shakespeare's greatest contemporary, the epic poet Edmund Spenser, derived directly from Chaucer, whom he praised as the "well of English undefiled." That prompted the 18th-century poet-critic John Dryden to term Chaucer "a perpetual fountain of good sense.
Question: Is it possible to do more pretentious name-dropping in such a short space?
Monday, November 2, 2009
Sunday, October 18, 2009
Friday, October 9, 2009
Wednesday, October 7, 2009
Now all of that is cleared up, so let me begin by restating the question which is the title of this post: Does a dream consistute a whole, or partial, experience? (And to this let me add the sub-question of whether or not this experience is applicable to the real world.) I cannot address this topic myself, as my only expertise is as a dreamer myself.
Most dreams that I have had in the past have occurred more like montages and most I have not recalled in the morning (though I seem to have wakened with the sense that I had sensed something during the past night). This was not so with a dream that I had (or, should I say, experienced?) more than a year ago--I do not recollect the date. In this dream, I had a son out of wedlock. I realize that this would be seriously unethical in the world in which I actually live, but in the microverse of the dream, this issue was hardly raised. It was a dream which inhabited the bare facts rather than the contemplative ideals; the only reason that I mention the birth was out of wedlock was because it drives home the unexpectedness of the experience.
In the dream, I remember the white tile of the hospital, who was in the room and why, even the features of the muling infant. And I also remember that either I--or the alternative persona who I was inhabiting in the dream--was at first upset with the inconvenience of the responsibility but, when confronted with the reality of fatherhood for the first time, underwent what could only be called a rebirth through this birth; a certian moment of epiphany in which I realized that my identity would now be redefined and, though I had little experience in this new life, i knew from the alienated recollection of the past that this would be the happiest moment that I would ever have.
Since I could obviously not replicate this dream in the real world without serious ethical hazard, the only way to discover whether this constitutes a genuine experience (even though artificially induced) is to ask the vast web of blog-readers who are fathers whether they remember this sort of experience when their first child was born. In other words, since it happened in an alternate reality--one of which the mind alone is king--is this experience false, or was the sensational reaction genuine?
The other dream I mean to pose more as a thought experiment: I recollect taking a taxi home from my former place of work (The University Inn) in the middle of winter. The taxi is crammed with seven different people so I am forced to sit on the floor with no seatbelt (something which could not happen in reality, as it would be against safety regulations). A blizzard has broken out. Then, just twenty paces from where I am to step out of the vehicle, the taxi skids. I view the process by which the driver loses control through the backwindshield; I see the car tracks like a straight line in the snow become jagged and then curved as the taxi careens into the creek on the other side of the road. I first I do not believe that this could be a reality; people die in accidents all the time, but I never thought that I could be involved in an accident; then, through the backwindshield, I see the black tree branches pass against the white sky and I tbink, finally, some peace! and I close my eyes (an act which wakes me).
Is this how I would react were I confronted by this experience in actuality? I wonder. And i hope that you enjoy wondering about it also.
Saturday, September 26, 2009
Friday, September 25, 2009
These recent articles will, hopefully, put such legends to rest. It is true that some of those associated with Kristol--not the least of which his son, William--have been among the war's most avid supporters and also that support for robust foreign policy was a key tenant to Kristol's move toward conservatism (though application of this foreign policy is open to debate.) But the central tenent to neoconservatism was always its skepticism of human pretensions, whether these came in the form of Stalin's show trials or Johnson's Great Society.
Because of this skepticism, however, neoconservatism was critical of every ideology, not the least of which some of the ideolgical hacks of the Right (rather than those who, like myself, were content to be conservative rather than Conservatives.) These hacks all had different names and interests: the John Birch Society, Governor George Wallace and the segregationist South, Ross Perot and his protectionist Reform Party.
Neoconservatives on the other hand were willing to take to heart Burke's counsel that the society without the means for reform was without the means for its own preservation. Government could only rule in the present; it could not push the people forward toward a utopian future or pull them backward toward an ephereal past.
Out of the crooked timber of humanity, Kant says, nothing straight has ever been made; this truth was at the core of Irving Kristol's political philosophy, and today, when America has put in the White House a man who promises to create a kingdom "right here on earth," all citizens would do well to view this idealism with the same skepticism as that of Kristol. Humanity may be crooked, but not all that is beautiful is straight.
Monday, September 14, 2009
Saturday, September 12, 2009
"Local officials and state police are confirming that a pro-life advocate was shot and killed outside a high school in this Michigan town. The person, who is described as well-known but whose identity has not been released, was shot multiple times while protesting abortion outside Owosso High School.
"Officials say the shooting occurred at 7:30 a.m. local time and most students were inside the school building at the time of the incident.
"State police have also confirmed they apprehended a suspect about 8:15 a.m at the suspect’s home in this small community northeast of Lansing."
Friday, September 4, 2009
Friday, August 28, 2009
Whether his ideals (which evolved occasoinally and were not always consistent) were correct or not is an entirely different matter. The most important part of his legacy was his ability to fight for them. By this standard, his legacy may prove the most enduring of all of the Kennedy brothers (though he will probably always be the least glamorous). John F. Kennedy was an effective president, but his talents derived more from his willingness to move with the tide as his ability to impose his will upon it. Robert Kennedy--had he lived and been elected to the presidency--probably would have tried to bring more idealism than prudence to the White House, but that was a reality that never materialized.
Edward Kennedy's legacy, if nothing else, should probably be in demonstrating that it is not the politician who governs from the center that moves history, but rather the politician with the charisma to define where the center is. Kennedy may have moved that center in the wrong direction, but, in the broad narrative of history, it probably won't matter. What else can one say but requiscat in pacem.
Tuesday, August 25, 2009
Thursday, August 20, 2009
This is a conclusion which I came to today, while trying to find ways to occupy my time in between the moments of bureaucratic business. During the in between time, I cook, read Nabokov, read Scruton, read the Old Testament (and the New Testament, when I come to that) and walk about the campus. (The city of Rochester is really nothing worth walking around from what I have seen of it.)
Anyway, the main point I'm getting at is that, while certain people can never be truly happy (this is not something that they have to work for, in the straightest sense of the word) everyone has to run swiftly to keep apace of dissatisfaction.
Monday, August 17, 2009
I finally found the congregation that I was looking for; it was a small group of about ten people; I was the only young man present. The sermon was on understanding the will of God (mostly preaching out of the book of Thessalonians); it was worth it, though the service itself was a bit high-churchy for my taste. Will I attend the same church next week? Probably. But I don't know if I will keep going to the church after that; I was actually thinking of visiting the Lutheran church that meets up above (even though I have no intention of becoming a Lutheran.)
On a similar front, the monks at the Abbey at Genessee asked me if I had any inclination to become a Trappist myself. I told them that even if I were a Catholic (which I am not) I could never take on the vows of celibacy. Genessee makes a pleasant retreat, though, and, if one did want to spend his entire life attached to a single location, there are worse locations to attach oneself to.
Monday, August 3, 2009
I'm not old. (I'm still in my early twenties.) But that doesn't mean I'm younger than the world that we live in now; I'm actually quite a bit older than it (or at least I have lived long enough to remember when it was not.) This brave new world that I am referring to is the world of the computer, of mass communication, of globalization. I remember a time when I had trouble believing that the Soviet Union could be breaking apart; that America could want any president other than George H. W. Bush; that history was the last victim of itself, consigned to the archives where only those who made a living by reinterpreting it bothered to follow. I remember I time when I could not remember where I was when the World Trade Centers came down.
This world is a new world; or else I am like a man who turned around in Socrates's hypothetical cave and saw what had been all along, though he was unaware of it. (It is not that this is an impossibility; I avoided getting an email address for as long as I could; I was twenty-one when I finally obtained a cellular phone.) In this new world, it has become easier to keep track of people, which is why no one bothers to do it anymore. We have advanced to a point where it has become polite to lie by saying "I'll keep in touch" but perhaps impolite to annul that lie by actually keeping in touch.
But, for all of that, the frontier still beckons. The world can still be remade, but not until it remakes us first. And, if the primary facet of this current world has been trivialization, what will the next era bring I wonder?
Saturday, July 25, 2009
Tuesday, July 21, 2009
I should begin by noting that I do not find myself feeling particularly sorry of George Tiller, though I am sorry that his family now has to go through the distress of losing him. If the woman's health was at grave risk, then a few of the abortions he performed may have been justifiable, but, all in all, what he did was atrocious and, in a fully civilized and moral society, would have brought down upon him the full weight and discipline of the law.
But therein lies the problem: No society is fully civilized and all find ways to let their small acts of utilitarian immorality find justification through one premise or another. It serves an apparatus of power, but no matter how corrupt the apparatus is, it still holds up the body. Acts like those of the lone gunman who murdered George Tiller are not reprehensible because they are committed against this or that individual, but rather because they are committed against the social apparatus as a whole. An assault on anyone is an assault on everyone.
I have heard some--not pro-lifers but rather libertarians and "progressives" playing DARE--argue that an unjust law is no law at all (and, by implication, that individual citizens should engage in vigilantism where the government fails to do so.) This is completely wrong. A law is a law, unjust or not and, if they play the History card (what about slavery?) then I say just because I would have supported Lincoln's Emancipation Proclamation and Anti-Secessionist policies does not necessarily mean that I should have been obliged to condone the Nat Turner Rebellion or to stand beside John Brown at Harper's Ferry. Even the Civil Rights movement in the 1960s had the law on their side when it came to brass tax (see Brown v. Board of Education.)
In short, I see no reason why I should not be sorry for Dr. Tiller's passing (if, indeed, he did provide unnecessary late-term abortions) while, at the same time, hoping that Scott Roeder, his murderer, spends the rest of his life in prison or, perhaps, joins the dwindling few on death row.
Thursday, June 25, 2009
Tuesday, June 23, 2009
I wanted to read "Fahrenheit 451" before responding. I have done so. Bradbury, like Huxley before him, was very prescient in seeing the threat of passive despotism in a society; by passive despotism, I don't mean the type the seeks to create a New Man, but rather a variety of despotism that is created to govern once the New Man has been created. Of course, because this sort of despotism adapts to cultural change rather than forcing the culture to change according to its abstract goals--as in countries like the Soviet Union or the People's Republic of China--the illiberalism of the system does not manifest itself to any but the outsiders of the society.
The claim that "we are left with democracy" I think is true, with some qualification, but the most important follow-up question, for me, would be how we are to protect democracy from becoming a tyranny of the mob. This question isn't a new one; nearly two centuries ago, de Tocqueville wrote of how democracy tended toward passive totalitarianism: "In America the majority draws a formidable circle around thought. Inside those limits, the writer is free; but unhappiness awaits him if he dares to leave them. It is not that he has to fear an auto-da-fe, but he is the butt of mortifications of all kinds and persecutions every day . . . He yields, he finally bends under the effort of each day and returns to silence as if he felt remorse for having spoken the truth" (244).
This, for me, underlines one of the fundamental flaws of democracy: It trivializes recognition. Dissidents like Alexander Solzhenitsyn and Natan Sharansky could oppose autocratic regimes, and, in cases like these, their imprisonment confirmed their relevance to the cause of freedom. But what about parents in present-day Germany who are imprisoned for homeschooling their children? What about people like Liinda Gibbons in Canada who are imprisoned for protesting permissive abortion policies? In cases like this, the abuse of power would seem apparent to most classical liberals and conservatives, but the abuse is not inconsistent with the General Will of the nations whose governments perpetrate the action.
To summarize, totalitarianism failed in the West in the twentieth century because partisan elites tried to create a New Man through deeply flawed belief systems (such as communism and Nazism). In the twenty-first century, we may very well see a totalitarianism with all of the opposite characteristics: absent will be the near-religious devotion that either of these two ideologies inspired in its adherents; there need be no talk of revolution, culture or even the New Man because under such a totalitarianism all of these could be assumed. A government does not need to create a New Man if he already exists. The disturbing part, though, is that the success or failure of this sort of totalitarianism is, from what I can tell, indeterminate.
Wednesday, June 17, 2009
"Revolutionary Road" is no exception to the self-justifying slag pile which is the genre of antisuburban art. The movie clearly hates suburbia, but it is difficult to articulate why. Is suburbia merely an artifice to keep the machine of society running? You wouldn't guess it, had you the free Wheelers as neighbors. They seem to make no reservations about ripping one another apart. (Though, given the acting in this film, you might think that suburbia was a bit hammy if you visisted the neighborhood.)
Apparently the Wheelers, like so many other (fictional) bored suburban couples before them thought that they might actually make a difference in the world (and were fortunate enough not to live by their desire for recognition--who knows how many people have let their children starve to death from neglect in some of those bohemian-style art colonies.) The real problem was that they just couldn't shake it off; if not, their lives might have been happy, or at least more peaceful. After all, isn't that what artifice is for?
After having written in this, I should acknowledge that I can't speak with any degree of authority as to whether suburbia is or is not miserable. I lived as un-suburban a life as anyone in a small town could live. My parents were not particularly radical, but there was no more radical place in the state of Idaho than that street on which I grew up: Elm Street, fraternity row, in a house across the street from a brown-stone fraternity, juxtaposing a Southern revival TriDelt sorority and a graduate student apartment complex. Maybe this is the reason why suburbia has always had an appeal--I have never desired to live in suburbia, but there are aspects of it which I admire. However fraudulent it may be, there's no establishment which is much realer and it is much realer than some.
Thursday, June 4, 2009
There’s always been something unrealistically romantic about too much emphasis on place and memory in America. Not so far from where I live there was a town -- Cassville, GA -- that, by 1860, was extremely well settled, had several serious institutions of learning, and certain sorts of aristocratic traditions that are still remembered by those who care about that stuff. It wasn’t even there until 1840 -- it was founded in the wake of the pretty anti-communitarian Cherokee removal that’s part of our wonderful southern heritage -- and it was devastated by the Civil War. Community came and went with almost blinding speed, as it has done often in our country’s history. (Consider also, if you want, how quickly the Cherokees transformed themselves into good [slaveholding sometimes], agrarian Americans, with their really deep traditions both adapting and sometimes disappearing.)This is not to say that I completely object to the agrarian ideals of place, belonging, connection, but it is a telling fact that most of the famous agrarians did not choose this life, even when they could have done so--Wendell Berry, for instance, is a farmer and lives off the land, but he does not have to depend on the land for his sustenance. (And neither did his father, from whom he inherited the land.) But Wendell Berry is the closest that individuals come to living up to their ideals. Many other agrarian idealists are professors, writers, doctors, etc. Men who farm as a hobby. Or not at all.
Peter Lawler, Postmodern Conservative
I would say it is inappropriate to be unfairly judgmental. After all, men like these are necessary for the message of agrarianism to reach the people. But most farmers I have met are hardly distinguishable from the rest of us, once they cross the city's boarders, and it is moments when I meet the real farmer they I begin to suspect that agrarianism is a romantic notion which distracts us from the crooked timber of . . . reality.
Wednesday, May 27, 2009
Tuesday, May 26, 2009
For years, I had no idea precisely how to characterize my feelings about Whitman. In high school, I always disliked his verse and I ignored it for most of my college years; it was not until the end of my sophomore year and the beginning of my junior year that I read him again and, based on this second look, began to see what it was the people see in him.
There is still not a single line of Whitman's poetry which I find to be particularly memorable--with the exception of a few lines perhaps from his contemplations on "The Learned Astronomer" or "O Captain, my Captain". Nonetheless, while Whitman is not the greatest of American poets, he is certainly the most American of great poets. No poet in the American canon captures the spiritual biography of the union--before, during and after the Civil War--with the verve and feeling of Walt Whitman.
From Whitman, one gets the sense of the young optimist looking out upon an illimitable frontier, the soldier whose only music is the drum and the fief, the mourner who can only find meaning in General Sherman's phrase--both cynical and poignant--that "War is hell", the elder bard seeking redemption through the creeds and incantations that his younger heart once found to be so much foolishness.
Who can not read Whitman's work without thinking that this is not only the work of a man, but also a nation?
Saturday, May 16, 2009
Friday, April 17, 2009
Wednesday, April 8, 2009
However, for anyone who does choose to read the book, there are a few deeper criticisms which are worth considering. Much of the book is devoted to movies that celebrate Southern Agrarianism (or at least localism) as opposed to an implied cosmopolitan North. Some of the movies in this category which Winchell praises are Intruder in the Dust, Gone with the Wind, The Trip to Bountiful and Gods and Generals. I have nothing against the Southern localism or paleoconservative Herderian sense of belonging that Winchell promotes in the book; the problem is (I think) that no one else objects to the localism either; only the nastiness with which the localism has been occasionally associated (i.e. segretation, disenfranchisement, lynching, etc.).
Winchell clearly--and rightly, I would say--does not want to defend this nastiness, but since the nastiness comprises the politically incorrect attributes of Southern localism, the title of the book seems somewhat redundant. It is true that there are far too many academics and cosmopolitans who unfairly dismiss localism as xenophobic and either wish to toss it in the dustbin of history or allowing it to remain as a curiosity, rather than actually engaging with it critically (and with a healthy degree of self-criticism). Even so, the agrarianism of the Amish is not politically incorrect; just quaint.
A really politically incorrect film would not be one promoting agrarian life, but rather one that emphasized the positive aspects of suburban existence. The suburbs have been lambasted in almost every movie that ever dealt with them--The Man in the Gray Flannel Suite, The Graduate, American Beauty, Revolutionary Road--but, seriously, what other arrangement allows people to engage in modern society while still providing them with badly needed privacy? If you want to watch something politically incorrect, watch Little Children; now there was a politically incorrect movie.
Wednesday, April 1, 2009
Obama's Gift to the Queen [Jonah Goldberg]
This just in:
Diplomatic jaws dropped across the continent yesterday when it was revealed that U.S. President Barack Obama had, once again, fumbled a routine protocal of international statecraft: finding the right gift for a foreign leader or head of state. In a private ceremony with Queen Elizabeth, Her Royal Highness bequeathed to the Obamas one of the earliest known copies of William Shakespeare's Henry V. She also presented him with the framed orginal sheet music of John Newton's "Amazing Grace." To the Obama daughters, the Queen gave a dollhouse-sized replica of Windsor Castle with a functioning train station in the year of the compound. They also received a prize Shetland pony. Mrs. Obama was given a ruby ring commissioned and worn by Queen Victoria.
The Obamas, unfortunately, did not seem prepared for the occasion despite the row set off by the exchange of gifts between Prime Minister Brown and the U.S. President barely a month ago. Mr. Obama rather unceremoniously handed the Queen a shopping bag from the Duty Free shop at Heathrow airport. It contained a signed paperback copy of Dreams of My Father, purchased at the WH Smith shop at the airport, a bottle of Johnny Walker Scotch (black label), a CD of the Swedish band ABBA's greatest hits (still in shrink wrap with a 2-for-1 sticker on it) and ten bags of M&Ms with the presidential seal on them.
The Queen responded in a rather flat: "How delightful."
Sunday, March 29, 2009
More than half of the America people have adopted the position that the War in Iraq was a mistake. (Admittedly, more than half supported the war in 2003, but this still makes for tens of millions of citizens who would have preferred avoiding a war fought under the circumstances and principles which were used to justify the invasion of Iraq.) Still, if those who opposed the war in Iraq claim that, because of their position on the war, they should be free to maintain their freedom of conscience by withholding taxes, this may very well introduce an inconvenient precedent: if opposition to one war is reason enough for some citizens to withhold federal taxes, then opposition to any war could be reason enough for other citizens to withhold a similar portion of their income. While this may seem reasonable in the case of Iraq, examples grow more extreme: Should it have applied to former members of the German American Federation, or what about the Copperheads and their supporters? Maybe. But, if nothing else, it is fair to say that cases exist in which this form of dissent would not only be contrary to national interest, but also national survival.
Furthermore, because conscience is held privately and its content is unknown to all but the individual who possesses it, allowing for a conscience-driven boycott on taxes also opens an unintended loop-hole for citizens who merely want to pay lower taxes: While they may or may not oppose a particular war, they know that they oppose their marginal tax rate and, based on this, make their conscience a handmaiden of their financial desires. Many would sincerely wish to withhold taxes in good conscience; the problem is that there is no empirical way of differentiating the sincere from the scoundrels.
This has covered the pragmatic dimension of the issue, but theoretical reasons also exist for opposing tax-boycotts as a form of dissent: any political nation (as opposed to a natural nation with common language and culture but no governing body) is in some way responsible for assigning roles, either through allowance (in which case citizens find their natural positions) or draft (in which case citizens are assigned their positions, natural or otherwise). Generally, the purpose of government is to allow citizens to live in an environment in which they do not have to struggle to maintain their life, liberty and property, but, for this to work in a nation which is larger than an organic community, procedures are necessary for effective government.
American political procedure calls for the executive branch to wage and manage war and the legislative branch to approve or disapprove the declaration of war as well as the funding for duration of it. But both branches of government are elected; in a sense, government of the people, by the people, for the people is still reflected in national procedure, though these procedures are debatably muddled by contemporary forms of media or education. As such, individual opinion is best expressed through the ballot box, rather than through the absence of tax payments. There is no need to conduct a passive revolution because the people are capable of conducting and active (though peaceful) one every two years.
Naturally, this argument assumes that the individual's actions--in a political context--should be subordinate to the will of the community (elections express semi-general will, not individual will), so it is worth inquiring into whether or not this is a valid assumption. Indeed, one may be a crowd, but the very notion of a society--as opposed to a community--is based upon solidarity and cooperation. Government may be meant to insure rights (as was indicated before) but it also exists to curtail the arbitrary freedom or license of the powerful or malevolent (if nothing else, it is nice to know that, if someone sets fire to your house, the fire brigade will show up). Since all benefit from the government performing this task, it is just that all who benefit from the performance help sustain it. The option does remain of going into physical exile (i.e. going abroad) or civic exile (i.e. moving to an American Indian reservation or an Amish community); this is to say that, while boycotting taxes is not an ethical civic option, individual citizens are not exonerated from the moral implications of civic action. It is simply that the morality of the question gives rise to other (more difficult but also more pointed) moral choices.
I realize that I have not devoted much space to the moral side of the question. What, for instance, is it that allows the Amish to refrain from paying taxes to causes that they consider to be unjust whereas a Methodist may also oppose the Iraq War but still has to pay to finance it? One of the reasons was already indicated: the Amish community does not sit under the government's aegis in the same capacity as do other opponents of the war. But also categorical imperative needs to be taken into consideration when the government determines who is or is not exempt. A Methodist or a Catholic may believe that a particular war is inconsistent with his beliefs, but to justify boycotting his taxes, he has to be sure. The only mode of assurance is to articulate an hermeneutic by which it is not only possible to judge the Iraq War as unjust but by which it is also possible to judge every war--or at least every war of a clearly identifiable category--as unjust.
Theories of ius ad bellum would seem to help in these circumstances, but they often only add two additional levels of complexity; first, because the theory needs to be interpreted (always a controversial matter) and, second, because the universal theory then needs to be applied to a particular context. This latter task becomes particularly difficult in a case like that of the War in Iraq: No one can really agree on whether the purpose of the war was to destroy Iraq's WMD program (which turned out not to exist) or to make the Middle East safe for democracy. Unless an individual is willing to accept total pacifism, his rationalizations will almost inevitably devolve into opinion rather than irrefutable fact.
As is indicated by the above argument, there are cases in which boycotting taxes is an appropriate action (i.e. when not doing so would perpetuate action which was in direct violation of a moral absolute), but individual conscience is only the first criterion for a boycott. In other words, individual conscience can only take precedence over an action judged necessary when both an individual and the society can agree that the individual's views on a particular issue on incontrovertible; opinion, however strong, is not good enough.
Tuesday, March 24, 2009
For a foreign film, it does seem extremely American: The primary language of the movie is English and the Bryan Mills, the film's hero, is undoubtedly an American citizen (though he is played with remarkable fluency by the Irish actor Liam Neeson). The pace is also not unlike a John Frankenheimer thriller--a shootout followed by a car chase culminating in a knife fight, etc. But, unlike so many parallel American action flicks, the makers of "Taken" have decided to throw political correctness to the wind and have included in the cast of villains not only Americans and Frenchmen but also Albanians and Arabs.
This is no small feat given the current political context and the tepid relations between the United States and France in the recent past. But Morel (and the screenwriter, Luc Besson) manage it by sticking to common Euro-thriller motifs: a kidnapped daughter, a father looking for her and, in the process, winning retribution; this is to say that the story is not particularly original, but there is something about "Taken" which prevents it from feeling like Just Another Action Flick.
Part of this stems from the fact that it is comfortable in that role. The screenwriters do not make the mistake of making Bryan Mills into some sort of washed out cliche seeking redemption in liquor bottles or stitching relations with estranged family members. On the contrary, he appears to have been a reasonably devoted father (though he cannot outspend his main competitor, the dreaded stepfather, played by Xander Berkeley) and about his role in the CIA he does not seem in the least bit apologetic. There are no nightmare sequences about torched Sandanista villages or whatever else a Hollywood screenwriter may have felt obligated to include because the film is only engaged in its present action.
Furthermore, Liam Neeson is a perfect actor for this sort of portrayal. He possesses an authoritative presence which is not available with alternative stars (like, say, George Clooney). One has to venture back to the days of Clint Eastwood and John Wayne to find a character who seemed so unflaggingly superhuman; but Mr. Neeson is also an actor who cannot help but be human even while performing Herculean tasks. The audience is never allowed to forget that he is acting as a father first and a Hobbesian second; this is to say that the film does not provide the quintessential image of American machismo, but still, its hard to think of any movie in the last two decades which has come closer.
Wednesday, March 18, 2009
Larison notes that, should the War in Iraq go south, the hawkish Republicans will be able to claim that it was Barack Obama's mishandling of the war which led to our failure at nation-building. I don't quite buy into this. It seems to me that, should a reasonably stable autocracy be established in Iraq after the center no longer holds, the Republicans would be glad to forget about the war altogether. If nothing else, they probably won't want to admit defeat (which would be necessary for them to claim that Obama egregiously mishandled the war.)
It is much more likely that Sanford will fail based solely on his inability to square governance with idealism on the national level. Sanford is now being posed as the sane version of Ron Paul (R-Texas) by those extreme libertarians and paleoconservatives who made Paul's 2008 campaign into an event worth paying attention to. But Ron Paul's campaign was. even self-consciously, a reductio ad absurdum. Ron Paul knew from the beginning that he would not be the next president of the United States.
With Sanford, on the other hand, should he run, he will be running to actually be elected, not just to publicize libertarian/traditional conservative ideas. The American people will understand his opposition to the Iraq War. Even now, most of them admit that it was a mistake.
But the libertarian notion that when everyone is trading everyone is happy is a myth. Money may be the primary engine of human activity when it is scare, but, when it is plentiful, people find other issues over which they can fight. And Sanford will have to take a position on issues like this if he intends to become president.
Osama bin Laden, for instance, brought down the World Trade Centers because of the presence of American soldiers in the Middle East; but there were American soldiers in the Middle East in the first place becauze (fundamentally, if not on a case by case basis) we needed to protect our oil interests in the region. Without oil, half of the nation would starve to death. How does libertarian sensibility grasp that?
Sunday, March 8, 2009
Friday, February 27, 2009
Wednesday, February 25, 2009
"So, where are we? We as conservatives are in the wilderness, and many of you are hopeless. So we have a guy, Bobby Jindal, 37 years old, first time on the national stage, shows up last night to make a response to The Messiah. All he did was articulate what we believe. All he did was articulate opposition to what Obama is doing, with the obligatory when he’s right, we’ll work with him, just like we worked with Clinton on NAFTA, just like we worked with Clinton on welfare reform after we brought him in. These things happen. It doesn’t mean that we lose our distrust. All Bobby Jindal did was tell us what conservatism is; he used his own life story to do it; he talked about the American people making the country work. He had it all. Now, he may not have done it in the same stylistic way as Obama. I can understand the Democrats trashing the man, just as they trashed Sarah Palin. They are mean-spirited, heartless, horrible winners. But the people on our side are really making a mistake if they go after Bobby Jindal on the basis of style.
Because if you think people on our side, I’m talking to you, those of you who think Jindal was horrible, in fact, I don’t want to hear from you ever again if you think that what Bobby Jindal said was bad or what he said was wrong or not said well, because, folks, style is not going to take our country back. Solid conservatism articulated in a way that’s inspiring and understanding is what’s going to take the country back. Bobby Jindal’s 37 years old. I’ve spoken to him numerous times. He’s brilliant. He’s the real deal. I’m not coming here to defend him, he doesn’t need that. We’re going to have to figure out what we want. Do we want to have somebody in our party who can sound as smart as Obama regardless what he says and convince people to vote for us, or do we believe in a set of principles that defined this country’s founding and will return it to greatness again?"
Sunday, February 22, 2009
Jungle Cat Award for Best Film: Gran Torino
Jungle Cat Award for Best Actor: Clint Eastwood, Gran Torino
Jungle Cat Award for Best Director: Christopher Nolan, The Dark Knight
I think that would have been much more inspired than that which was actually offered up, but, what can I say: I suppose that we'll have to wait for a whole new year.
The entire notion is a stunt by the Democratic Party to have a cake and eat it also. They talk about finding "common ground," but seem perfectly content to be the ones to define which grounds are common and which grounds are off-limits. What they are actually doing is inviting pro-lifers to accept their own terms and lend easy support to programs which have the stated purpose of "reducing the number of abortions". There is not even any concrete evidence that indicates that abortions are reduced by an increase in social programs such as day-care.
The most fundamental problem with their reasoning is that they may want to reduce abortions, but they want to reduce abortions when starting from the maximum number. The notion that abortions decreased because of Bill Clinton's social policies is a myth; it was actually the restrictions of governors--from Bob Casey to Kirk Fordice--during the 1990s that reduced the number of abortions. (Incidentally, the number continued to decrease, largely due to the efforts of a GOP administration during the last eight years.) In their ideal society, the Democrats want the maximum number of abortions to be a possibility, if not the status quo. But when the status quo is not desireable for those who consider themselves pro-life, why should they consider making common ground where it is defined by those who wish to increase the death-toll?
Friday, February 20, 2009
It is our duty now to begin to lay the plans and determine the strategy for the winning of a lasting peace and the establishment of an American standard of living higher than ever before known. We cannot be content, no matter how high that general standard of living may be, if some fraction of our people—whether it be one-third or one-fifth or one-tenth—is ill-fed, ill-clothed, ill-housed, and insecure.
This Republic had its beginning, and grew to its present strength, under the protection of certain inalienable political rights—among them the right of free speech, free press, free worship, trial by jury, freedom from unreasonable searches and seizures. They were our rights to life and liberty.
As our nation has grown in size and stature, however—as our industrial economy expanded—these political rights proved inadequate to assure us equality in the pursuit of happiness.
We have come to a clear realization of the fact that true individual freedom cannot exist without economic security and independence. “Necessitous men are not free men.” People who are hungry and out of a job are the stuff of which dictatorships are made.
In our day these economic truths have become accepted as self-evident. We have accepted, so to speak, a second Bill of Rights under which a new basis of security and prosperity can be established for all—regardless of station, race, or creed.
Among these are:
The right to a useful and remunerative job in the industries or shops or farms or mines of the nation;
The right to earn enough to provide adequate food and clothing and recreation;
The right of every farmer to raise and sell his products at a return which will give him and his family a decent living;
The right of every businessman, large and small, to trade in an atmosphere of freedom from unfair competition and domination by monopolies at home or abroad;
The right of every family to a decent home;
The right to adequate medical care and the opportunity to achieve and enjoy good health;
The right to adequate protection from the economic fears of old age, sickness, accident, and unemployment;
The right to a good education.
All of these rights spell security. And after this war is won we must be prepared to move forward, in the implementation of these rights, to new goals of human happiness and well-being.
America’s own rightful place in the world depends in large part upon how fully these and similar rights have been carried into practice for our citizens.
(The highlighted section should be written as "People who are hungry and out of job are what dictatorships are made from." The USSR and Nazi Germany ended up with people who were hungry and out of a job precisely because petty dictators promised them a society in which people would NOT be hungry and out of a job. It is Hobbesianism at its most extreme. Here's hoping that FDR's Second Bill of Rights is never implemented. We're lucky that it wasn't sixty-four years ago.)
Wednesday, February 18, 2009
- E. J. Dionne
I haven't decided how I feel about Rick Warren yet, but, from what I can tell, he appears to be a perfectly amiable and faithful Christian gentleman. It is the latter part of this sentence that is of most interest to me (". . . deriding mainline Protestants for not caring much 'about redemption, the cross, repentance'"). Before Reverend Warren apologizes, I think that Mr. Dionne would do well to point to produce a mainline Protestant who does care "about redemption, the cross, repentance"--or at least care more than Archbishop Schorri whose practical prescriptions for Christianity read like a U.N. Charter. (As a matter-of-fact, if Jody Bottum's article [http://www.firstthings.com/article.php3?id_article=6254] is at all accurate, her prescriptions may, in fact, be the U.N. Charter.)
Sunday, February 15, 2009
Today's primary voice of agrarianism, Wendell Berry, does own a farm, and he does appear to actually put a great deal of work into it and eat food which is yielded by the soil. That being said, he is also a teacher and a well-known writer; his father, who was also a farmer, was primarily a lawyer. In other words, the life that Berry has lived has always been immersed in agrarian values, but has never been dependent upon it. And Berry is an exception to mold; most agrarians--from Cleanth Brooks and Donald Davidson to Robert Penn Warren--were academics.
Agrarianism is nothing new (and, by that, I mean it wasn't something that was invented in the 20th century, nor was it created by Jeffersonian democracy when the United States came into being.) It is as old, in fact, as Thomas Wyatt's poem "To My Owne John Poins", if not older. (It is, arguably, even Virgilian.) But the one key factor of agrarianism among all of its propagators is the fact that it is unrealizable. Agrarianism is based on a desire for the past, not enjoyment of the present and, while this might give rise to some good writing, I don't see how, in the long run, it doesn't express the experience that people such as myself had while working in the ground.
Sunday, February 8, 2009
"At the heart of modern liberalism is an argument that human beings do not possess inherent dignity, but only the value that is accorded to them by the estimation of others."
Professor Deneen always has insightful posts, but, in this particular essay, I believe that his ideas are in need of some qualification. First, it seems erroneous to say that "an argument that human beings do not possess inherent dignity" is "[a]t the heart of modern liberalism" because, while there may be one liberal tradition in Western Civilization, the voices of that tradition are legion and not always in agreement. Prof. Deneen is right to place Hobbes in the liberal tradition, but Hobbes is not an unproblematic liberal, nor is he a mainstream representative of liberalism. Hobbes's liberalism is of a variety that would not have endorsed that great liberal event, the American Revolution, but would rather have endorsed the absolute rule of the English monarchy.
A more representative voice of liberalism is that of John Locke who based his concept of just government on the inherent and transcendent dignity (or at least value) of every individual; in his "Second Treatise of Civil Government" Locke wrote: ". . . no one ought to harm another in his life, health, liberty or possessions. For men being all the workmanship of one omnipresent and infinitely wise Maker--all the servants of one sovereign Master, sent into the world by His order, and about His business--they are His property, whose workmanship they are, mad to last during His, not one another's pleasure;" (396). It is Locke's "Treatise," not Hobbes's "Leviathan," which serves as the philosophical foundation of America's "Declaration of Independence" on the basis of life, liberty and pursuit of happiness.
This is not to say that "liberal" societies have not been contemptuous of human life in the past. The French and Russian Revolutions both had abstract liberty as their justification (and the guillotine and gulags as their result). But, again, it is necessary to make a distinction between the principled, systematic liberty of St. Paul, Locke, Burke, Tocqueville and Niebuhr and the abstract, libertarian liberty of Rousseau, Godwin, and Mill.
Furthermore, it should be noted that from a historical point of view societies of principled liberty have been the most respectful of human dignity. There are many societies today which consider themselves liberal, and many of these societies have legalized illiberal practices like abortion, but, while abortion is permitted, it has not been mandated in any of these societies. There have been, on the other hand, illiberal societies, such as Communist China, which have taken it upon themselves to regulate procreation. All of the 20th century's most destructive ideologies have shared a distaste for liberalism, whether they be communist, fascist, or national socialist. (In all fairness, some of the only regimes to take a stand against abortion in the 20th and 21st centuries, such as Ceausesu's Romania and the Sandinistas' Nicaragua, have been illiberal regimes, but few conservatives would recommend either of these regimes as models for emulation.)
All of the above are extreme cases, but neither have older cultural or social orders which promoted communitarianism over individualism been much more respectful of human dignity: The Spartan state and the Roman family had no difficulty neglecting or killing children who were born with physical deformations or mental handicaps; neither, from an anthropological point of view, have tribal societies tended to deviate from this pattern.
Liberalism, far from being a modern heresy, is in fact a secular complement to the Judeo-Christian tradition and an outgrowth of its literature. While it did not sprout until the Enlightenment, its seed was planted from when God's people were led out of Egypt. This is not because Judeo-Christian literature propagates individualism--that ideology which underpins the liberal political philosophy--but rather because the literature assumed individualism. The scriptures--from the Exodus, through the writings of the prophets to the Gospels and the Acts--are prolific in the presentation of individuals representing divine will against an established secular order, something not found (or at least not praised) in the classical literature of the Greeks and the Romans. But, it should be noted, that none of these figures was required to advance divine purpose; they could have refused had they been willing to suffer eternal damnation rather than "set a man against his father, and a daughter against her mother, and a bride against her mother-in-law" (Matt 10:34), but the Gospel was for individuals, not communities and behind this rationalization lies the assumption that the individual's immortal soul is immeasurably more valuable than the community from which he came.
This is not to say that there are not possible abuses bound up in this assumption. Roe vs. Wade--which was both a failure of individualist and communitarian political philosophy--is a case in point. Liberalism is not utopian and does not always offer dogmatic or universal answers, but is probably the best system for governing human nature that has yet been developed.
Tuesday, February 3, 2009
Tuesday, January 27, 2009
One of the things that I did take away from the conferences was that Winston Churchill was the last true Burkean political leader. This isn't to say that we have not had political leaders who were devoted to principle rather than any particular policy and who were willing to adapt and reform while at the same time acknowledging the significance of a particular cultural context--John McCain and Daniel Patrick Moynihan come to mind--but Winston Churchill was the last Burkean to actually hold any significant political clout and possess the ability to lead not just a minority but rather the majority of his nation in the same direction. One doesn't see that anymore. Of course, based on the recent elections, the people seem perfectly contented with the rule of the sophisters, calculators and economists, which is not the same as saying that they should be.
Monday, January 19, 2009
During the session--which was on the relationship between libertarianism and conservatism--I said that libertarianism may have more sex appeal than conservatism (because it claims to be an ideology whereas conservatism is an anti-ideology), but, nonetheless, it is not useful when it is at its most ideological.
Hopefully, I will expound on this when I get back to my home turf, but the main problem with libertarianism is that, since it is an ideology based upon breaking down bariers rather than setting them up, it is incapable of articulating precisely what boundaries are necessary and why. They speak, for instance, of the harm principle or the necessity of government to maintain civic order so that citizens can not only enjoy but also practice their freedom. These ideas are all consistent with libertarianism, but they are not implied in libertarianism's central tenents (placing the highest premium on freedom in civic society). This borrowed precept creates a crack in the wall, I believe, that causes the entire edifice to collapse.
Because it has to admit that some social, political or cultural solidarity is necessary for any individual to practice his freedom beyond the freedom which brute nature affords, the libertarian is forced to borrow one leg of his philosophy from either conservatism or progressivism. Other than this, he has the abstraction of liberty, but this is not something that a conservative or progressive will spurn or distain. Libertarian freedom is a subjective freedom (meaning, in this case, it is based on what a somewhat patholigal or idiosyncratic group believes it to be.)
This doesn't mean that libertarianism is useless; it provides many incites into education reform, equity in jurisprudence and a more humble foreign policy, but it is only useful in so far it is like that which Michael Oakshott called conservatism: not an ideology but a disposition.
Wednesday, January 14, 2009
Saturday, January 3, 2009
Charity is generally defined--in this day and age--as noble spending or, otherwise, spending which contributes to the common good, rather than merely sating the hedonism of one consuming individual. Generally, I accept this definition, but I think that society applies it too liberally in some areas and not liberally enough in others.
For instance, as Kristof indicates in his article, many in the moneyed class will contribute to a symphony or maybe a museum. But is this form of giving charity? Is it actually performed to serve society--composed of people--or is it meant to sustain culture--composed of artifacts? Is it the love of human dignity which puts the signature on the check, or is it the love of th dignity of the humanities which does so?
On the other hand, parents spend interminable amounts of money upon their children in areas of education, food, shelter, etc. Even so, this is generally not regarded as charity. I will grant that if charity is defined in the traditional sense as caritas or inspecific love, this is contrary to the very idea of family which is always specific. But still, by the modern definition of charity--i.e. noble spending--this form of spending is clearly more noble than is an investment in the city orchestra.